Friday: Looks Like Rain
Weather at festivals has a far greater impact than it does during a normal workday where you might get wet while walking from your home to your car and then watch it trickle down the office window. When it rains at a festival, you’re wet all day long. Your clothes are soaked, whether you’re wearing a poncho or not. Your campsite is drenched, and all your stuff gets covered in mud. It creeps into your tent and makes your sleeping bag damp and soggy. It makes the area in front of the stage turn into a sticky mud pit that will suck off a flip flop every time you lift a foot. It totally blows. You find yourself going into survival mode, devolving into a primal being. Then when it gets dark, you can’t see where you’re going, yet the mud hazards remain.
[The Karma Wash closed up shop as the rain began]
But, the silver lining to the rainy day is that it unites the crowd, which is collectively enduring this hardship and trying not to let it get to us. And when the sun finally peaks back out from behind the clouds, it’s no longer taken for granted. Rain at a festival, made charming thanks to Woodstock, makes for a more accurate microcosm of life itself. To truly enjoy the sun, you’ve got to have a little rain, and we were happy to get our rain out of the way early on in the weekend.
Bill Kreutzmann’s 7 Walkers played the main stage at 2:45 p.m., the first real-deal Dead member appearance this year, to be followed later in the day by his ex-band-mates, Bob Weir in the late afternoon, and then Phil Lesh in the headlining slot at night. Highlights from Kreutzmann’s set included a peppy version of “Mr. Charlie,” a deeper cut from the early Dead’s Pigpen days, and a trance-inducing “Wharf Rat.”
Weir was accompanied by Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby (and a guy who played washboard and drums) for his show, and the musicianship was truly stellar. Weir, a straight-ahead rocker at heart, didn’t follow the jazzier jams too adeptly, but when he sang lead, like he did on his back-to-back country gems “Me and My Uncle” and “Mexicali Blues,” he owned it. Hornsby (who played over 100 shows with the Grateful Dead in their later years) tried out some new material that demonstrated both his playful songwriting and performing talents, reminiscent at times of the likes of Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman. Marsalis lent his own deep flavors to “Dark Star” and “Playin’ in the Band,” bringing each into uncharted jazzy territory.
Phil Lesh and Friends was the main event, and this year he brought along his two sons Graham and Brian to play guitar and mandolin, as well as the late Levon Helm’s most recent guitarist Larry Campbell and Campbell’s wife, singer Teresa Williams. Levon was on everyone's mind. (Drummer Joe Russo and guitarist Jackie Greene rounded out the lineup.)
Phil’s set was aggressive and driving, starting with a jam that popped into a triumphant “Till the Morning Comes” from American Beauty that quickly got the crowd carelessly stomping around in the mud. We got our third “Bird Song” of the festival (also played by DSO and 7 Walkers), a revved up, high-octane “Cumberland Blues,” the classic “Scarlet Begonias > Fire on the Mountain” sequence, “Saint Stephen” and a couple of nods to Levon Helm (who’s voice was beginning to sound a bit rough again when he played Vibes last year) with “Up on Cripple Creek” (sung by Phil’s son Graham) and “This Wheel’s on Fire.” For an encore, just as we were all expecting a ballad like “Brokedown Palace” or something, they kicked into “Shakedown Street,” sending us off with a disco-era dance party to end all dance parties.
When Phil Lesh said, at the end of his set, that, “This has over the years become my favorite festival to play, I must confess to you,” we believed him. Lesh doesn’t mince words, and he doesn’t deliver the same lines to every crowd either. The sincerity of Lesh’s statement echoed the sentiment permeating the crowd. There seemed to be no dark element lurking in the corners this time. Everyone was having a genuine great experience. No one I encountered was even being ironic about it. We’re a generation that was raised on irony, and we’re sick of it. Finally, some sincerity. It felt unforced and natural. We were all part of this cool thing that's going on, and we were all happy to be there for it. The press releases and the media (including us) throw around phrases like “good vibes” and whatnot to describe the festival, because it’s in the name for one, because people dress up in silly clothing, and because that’s just the way hippie festivals are described regardless of how they actually are, but there really did seem to be a ball of positive energy floating over Seaside Park at that moment. It was inescapable.
Late night was time to go check out the silent disco, all the way on the far end of the park, a mile and a half or so down the seawall, so you’ve got to really want it. You’re given a pair of headphones on your way into the penned-off area, with two audio channels to pick from and volume control. Then you kick off your shoes and dance in the sand, and try and figure out who is listening to which DJ. One station was more electronic oriented, the other mashed up oldies and whatnot. Fun times were had.
Saturday: Here Comes Sunshine
By morning, the ground in front of the stage has dried into a perfectly smooth, sun-caked sheet of solid, packed-down earth, pulverized, homogenized and compressed by thousands of stomping feet. Metric tons of sunscreen had been applied to thousands of backs, and twice as many arms.
[iPhone charging station in the concert field]
The Green Vibes stage heated up in the afternoon, both literally and figuratively, with Mates of State (from Stratford) and the Stepkids (from Bridgeport) both fiercely representing their home turf, shooting sonic rainbows out of the P.A. via their respective instruments. The Mates were tight as ever as a four-piece, their stylish sunglasses a necessity on a smoldering stage beneath the pulsing midday sun, their harmonies locking in like... well, like a married couple.
[Mates of State, emitting light, just as I remember it]
Deep Banana Blackout represented Bridgeport on the main stage, one of the few local constants over the years, and singer Jen Durkin’s voice was strong as ever.
The balmy afternoon was ripe for some beach time, so I waded out into the low tide waters with some friends to watch crabs and snails frolicking below as the horizon swirled like a Van Gogh painting.