By Mike Sembos
1:40 PM EDT, July 24, 2012
For Gathering of the Vibes 2012, I chose to decline all the media hook-ups and luxuries. No laptop. No power outlets. No VIP tent with couches. No pass for entry into the photo pit in front of the stage. No isolated, backstage, extra-clean Port-O-Pottys. I was fully embedded, camping in mud along with every other non-media-affiliated camper. It’s only fair.
As the ever-quotable Wavy Gravy said when I chatted with him (read the full article here) to preview the festival:
"The fact that it's people going to sleep together and waking up together, brushing their teeth, taking a crap… all those life things that you do in the Life Show that the music is the soundtrack for. That makes all the difference. It so transcends the one-day concert where you come rushing into a venue, you get blasted and you go home. This is: you get to sleep on it and live it. It's so much a richer experience."
This was my goal. To go all-in, with no reservations, and truly live it from start to finish.
Here’s how it all went down.
Thursday: Dead on Arrival
An afternoon arrival went exceptionally smoothly. Ryan was my co-pilot, and a sparkling twenty minute version of “Sugaree” from a Hartford Civic Center Dead show in 1977 blasting through what’s left of my 1993 Volvo wagon’s tattered speakers helped pass the time spent waiting in line. The weather was mercifully cool and breezy, so instead of baking in our vehicles and hoping our cars didn’t overheat (which happened to many during approach in last year’s heat wave) we were able to somehow enjoy the experience of waiting in line. It was then that it became evident that this year we were in for something special. No one in line was complaining or irate. Smiles abounded. When a group of cars needed to stick together so they could camp next to each other, someone would always let them merge without an issue. Friends were made, beers were cracked open. Easy does it. This was a decompression zone, and stress from the week dissolved as we proceeded through the security checkpoints.
Our group of eight set up our tents under a shady tree with an E-Z-Up-centered communal “living room” area. We got our heads right and set up the propane stove, then cooked some token grilled cheeses as the masses continued to arrive and pitch their tents around us. Bridgeport's Cosmic Jibaros played off in the distance, their Latin sounds floating over from the Green Vibes stage (the smaller, but still very high-quality stage).
[The dance zone]
The first band we got to see up close and personal was Zach Deputy (he’s not solo anymore these days, thought playing solo is what he’s known for: He now has a full band) around 5:30 or so. A great fit for the first day thanks to his high-energy, highly danceable rhythms, we waded into the middle of the crowd and noodle-danced with some of the finest-looking hippie girls seen in recent memory. At this point, our clothes were still clean and our deodorant still had an effect. The first show of the day on Thursday after settling in is the time when you’ve got to rediscover those muscles used to sync up to the beats. They fall into disuse while sitting at a desk all week and need to be warmed back up. Deputy was happy to assist.
[Andy, getting ready for Zach Deputy.]
Yonder Mountain String Band kept the momentum going, breaking the crowd in with their aggressive picking and bluegrass-y, feel-good songs, a little taste of Appalachia by way of Colorado. Towards the end of their set we snuck off for some dinner before settling in for the night with Dark Star Orchestra, the ultimate Dead tribute act that traditionally headlines the Vibes on Thursday, for campers and VIPs only.
The DSO setlist was lifted from the real Dead’s 7/18/89 show at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin, opening with a killer one-two-three punch of “Touch of Grey”, “Jack Straw” and “Jack-a-Roe.” Fake Bobby (Rob Eaton) is often so convincing in his playing and Weir mannerisms that you forget that he’s not the real thing. It’s kind of spooky. Fake Jerry (Jeff Mattson) is more of a country guitar player than his predecessor, John Kadlecik (now of Furthur), and that honed-in country feel helps DSO to shine at events like this where the spirit of Garcia is actively present.
[Keeler and Ryan, on the way to DSO]
Conspirator played the first late night show of the fest at the Green Vibes stage at 1:05 a.m. and was joined by members of Big Gigantic and Underground Orchestra to keep playing right through until 4 a.m. To me it kind of sounded like the music from Nintendo games like “Mega Man” or “Bionic Commando” or something, but the electronic-scene kids love it. To each their own.
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.
[Checking out the Sound]
Strangefolk hit at 7 p.m., having just reunited earlier this year after a 12 year absence. Our camp site was in line with the speakers, so we enjoyed a dinner of boiled ravioli (prepared by Andrew “The Ravioli King” Keeler) while they played in the distance, the food a much-needed energy-booster following an exhausting afternoon.
Soon after, it was getting to be time for Primus, and the line for “Potty Time” (the name given to the array of Port-O-Potty’s nearest to the main stage) was exceedingly long (no one wants Les Claypool’s bass tone to make them accidentally relieve themselves, I suppose).
Right about then, Roseanne Barr may or may not have given a speech about running for president. I'm still not sure if this really happened or not. People started chanting "Primus sucks" to call their heroes to the stage and poor Roseanne thought they were talking to her. But she handled it like a pro, regardless.
Primus was a little too weird for me at that exact moment, so I watched the first few songs then took a leisurely stroll down the seawall into the depths of the campground, all the way down to the end. I heard they played a great set though.
Long Island was crystal clear across the sound, with green lights in the distance evoking The Great Gatsby. You could say “hello” to anyone walking by in the opposite direction and start a fruitful conversation. It seemed everyone was laid back and up for whatever. Even the cops were cool. If you’re a Bridgeport cop, Vibes is not a bad way to spend a shift. The horseback cops, as always, got the most love.
Sunday: Sunshine Daydream
On Sunday, the campers were spent. We had nothing left that was clean, and we’d slept about as little as you’d expect. Our phones were all de-charged, our car keys were misplaced and garbage littered our campsites. Most of us saw the sunrise just a few hours before. But it’s Sunday and that the fresh-faced, energetic day crowd funnels in, many of them taking advantage of the $20 ticket offered to Connecticut residents. We secretly have contempt for them and their cleanliness and energy reserves, but it’s good-natured contempt.[Hippies]
Keller Williams played solo in the midst of another sunburn-worthy setting, using his loop pedals to keep the groove going at all costs.
The McLovins continued to represent Connecticut on the Green Vibes stage, already Vibes veterans though barely out of high school. (Out-of-state attendees are getting exposed to all these local bands, which is pretty great exposure for our fine state, dontcha think?)
Max Creek, by contrast, has been around since 1971. They hit the main stage with more classic, stereotypical hippie festival fare.
At this point extreme fatigue set in, and though I would’ve liked to stick around for Steel Pulse, fantasies of a cool shower and some crisp, clean clothes proved too strong to resist. (The Avett Brothers were to close out the show, but they’re a bit too polished for me anyhow.)
[I'm not really sure what's going on here, but it seemed interesting at the time.]
Though in all honesty I enjoyed the lineup from last year better (Furthur, Elvis Costello and the Imposters, Toots and the Maytals, Jane’s Addiction), the overall vibe in 2012 was the best I’ve yet experienced. The collective energy of everyone there was the best you could’ve hoped for.
Thanks to Ken Hays and the whole Vibes crew, the City of Bridgeport, the Bridgeport Police and all the volunteers for making it so memorable and for helping everything to run so smoothly. It was a well-oiled machine with a finally tuned balance between safety and tolerance.
Now we’ve got to start campaigning to keep the Vibes in Bridgeport in the coming years as the contract with the city expires this year. Let's not let this thing slip away.
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