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Open Grass Festival Moves South

For the past three years, concert promoter Sammy Zuniga has fought to find a home for hippie-music culture in Lake Worth. The friendly, longtime concert producer and sun-drenched Peruvian ex-pat also puts on Lake Worth's annual Earth Day Peace Jam and staunchly advocates bringing alternative music to that city. His anti-pop-oriented festivals focus more on family-friendly events like the arts and showcasing exceptional bands that fly below the mainstream radar.

In 2007, Zuniga launched the Open Grass Arts and Music Festival in Lake Worth hoping that people would embrace his concept of annual hippie concerts.

Open Grass is a two-day music soiree of progressive jam bands from the Southeast. Past performers have included the Heavy Pets, Sosos, and Brother Bean. After two years of Open Grass with a respectable turnout, fans were expecting festival organizers to hit Lake Worth for a third go-round, even bigger than in the past.

Last week, however, Zuniga announced that Open Grass is in fact taking place in 2009 but that he's moving the whole operation south to Delray Beach. And he's decided to push the dates of the festival up, to January 10-11, to coincide with the return of Jam Cruise. It was a slightly jarring announcement, but Zuniga gave several key reasons why Lake Worth and Open Grass were headed in opposite directions.

For starters, the festival's previous location, Bryant Park, is hard to find if you're an out-of-towner, which many Jam Cruise attendees are. There are also not as many tangential attractions in the immediate area as in Delray.

"Now we're in a much more central location," he says. "We're in Old School Square, right in downtown Delray. There's a lot more foot traffic and a bunch of bars and restaurants around, so we'll be the center of attention." If that's not enough, there's also going to be an illuminated, 150-foot-tall Christmas tree in front of Old School Square, so finding the festival should be easier.

Zuniga has also found that, logistically, working on a cultural event such as this is easier in the considerably hipper Delray Beach.

"The City of Lake Worth, they don't have the background in the arts that I wanted to see," Zuniga laments. "Nobody had a good grip on art and music in that city. They don't fully understand the atmosphere we're trying to do. Delray has been much easier to work with. They have lots of culture and music events, so it's not such a foreign idea."

The most important factor in the latest Open Grass announcement is that the new dates align with the return of Jam Cruise — which runs from January 4-9 and which is essentially Langerado at sea. For the past six years, Jam Cruise has attracted thousands of soul, funk, and Grateful Dead-like jam-band lovers from all over the country. Zuniga doesn't see any reason why Open Grass shouldn't piggyback off the cruise's momentum.

"[Jam Cruise] comes back on the 9th of January, and there's gonna be 4,000 hippies hanging around town for a few extra days," he says. "I mean, come on. Moving the festival up a week was a no-brainer."

It also could be crucial to Open Grass' survival. During such difficult economic times, snagging the out-of-town crowd is smarter move than relying solely on locals. In the past, attendance for each festival has hovered around 1,000, and Zuniga hopes to surpass that next time. He's also got a solid lineup of music acts from the Southeast, including Laura Reed and Deep Pocket from North Carolina and Bobby Lee Rodgers of Savannah. Within the genre, the Southeast is a key market to capture, and Zuniga, to his credit, has an ear for picking some of the best bands in the region. Carlos Calderon, whose South Florida-based reggae band Fourth Dimension will play Open Grass for the first time in January, thinks the festival has a certain niche value that makes it important.

"I think it just showcases that the South actually has bands with substance," Calderon says. "And that not all good jam bands come from Oregon or out West. The whole concept is — the best of the South. For people coming to Open Grass, they can see and learn about some good jam bands from down here."

Fourth Dimension is an obvious exception to the concept; it plays reggae and doesn't tend to noodle as much as other bands on the bill.

"We normally don't play out to the jam-band crowd," Calderon says. "But hopefully, it expands some of our fan base. I used to have the misconception that 'Hey, we're a reggae band, so just throw us in front of a hippie audience and they'll love us,' but that's not always the case. In general, though, we're excited about Open Grass. South Florida doesn't really have that anymore... those, like, spontaneous festivals that aren't all corporate."

For Zuniga, who considers himself a first-generation hippie, the absence of corporate sponsorship is a concession he's willing to make. Open Grass has operated at a loss previously because of it, but there's a clear commitment to making the festival work.

"The business part of the music business often ruins the music," Zuniga says. "The music guests I have from out of town on the show, they are friends of mine. I'm not picking acts out of nowhere or the same cheesy four or five bands that play all the same festivals. I'm bringing really good bands that you'd pay $10 each to see."

With more than ten artists spread out over two days, the current price of $30 in advance online is a good bargain. You can also pay $50 for your entire family to attend, a move that was done in reaction to the economy. "It can be a family of three or a family of 20," Zuniga says. "I don't care. I just want people to come out and have a good time no matter what."

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Jonathan Cunningham