Seven North Florida bands bundled up in their best winter wear and took the stage Saturday night to compete for a coveted slot at this year’s Okeechobee Festival. After hours of serenading the crowd, one band emerged victorious: funk group Dionysus.
Braving the surprisingly chilly 33 degree winds, more than 500 concertgoers filled the Heartwood Soundstage in downtown Gainesville and enjoyed craft beer, funnel cake and barbeque. To keep the coat clad crowd warm, campfires, large electric heaters and benches lined the back of the hay-strewn field.
Destination Okeechobee: Perform in Paradise gave Florida bands the opportunity to win a spot in the Okeechobee Festival’s lineup. The competition was held in two showcases this year: one in Orlando in February and the other at Gainesville’s Heartwood Soundstage.
Dionysus will perform in the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival March 3, joining a set list headlined by heavy hitters such as rapper Meghan Thee Stallion and Australian act Tame Impala.
Seven North Florida bands competed Saturday for the slot after an online application process.
The groups were given a 15-minute set to showcase their hits, with the winner being chosen by the audience and four judges. QR codes around the venue allowed audience members to scan and vote.
Destination Okeechobee is judged based on musicianship, stage presence, originality and crowd participation. Bands egged on audience members to dance, take videos and sing along.
The four-hour showcase ended with Dunstan Wallace, the concert’s emcee, measuring audience participation through a decibal reader.
Winning a spot on the Okeechobee Festival lineup means great exposure for Gainesville based band Dionysus, but the process of getting there serves as a learning experience itself.
“I think playing these gigs is just kind of a side function of being really passionate about something,” said 27-year-old bassist David Wells. “Where your enthusiasm for a project is kind of bringing you to those locations where you can show it to people.”
While the audience donned hand warmers sold at the entrance, Dionysus wore onesie pajamas onstage.
“We will hug it out, we're stoked to do this together every time,” said 24-year-old drummer Ivan Padilla. “It's kind of a cheers to us, what we're doing.”
For the six bands who did not earn the sought-after spot at Okeechobee Festival, the competition still provided a special opportunity for bands to show off their unique sound.
Gainesville-based band Matcha regularly experimented with bells, saxophones and small drums. The band also boasted the largest cast of band members to take the Heartwood stage with a total of seven band members playing that night.
John Catino, 27-year-old lead singer, went into the competition with the plan to try out new instruments and test the band’s limits.
“We've changed up like a little bit of them to make it just a little bit more exciting,” Catino said. “This will be the first time that people see the horn sections, so the horn section is going to be a big addition.”
Folk rock group Madwoman showed off talent that has been in the making for nearly a decade.
High school sweethearts Jammie Daigle, a 27-year-old registered nurse, and Chandler McFarland, a 25-year-old digital marketing consultant, lead the band.
Although the four-person indie folk group made music individually for almost ten years, the band has only been together doing Gainesville shows for two years. The opportunity to compete for a spot meant the chance to take their music outside Gainesville — a community they appreciated for supporting their band.
“It's about community. It's about sharing your heart with the world,” said Daigle. “It's beautiful to have that platform to be able to share places of pain that you've kind of grown through with music, and a lot of people can resonate with that.”
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