As the age of the festival continues to swell, many are happily billing themselves as “Not your father’s hippie music festival.” In contrast, Gathering of the Vibes Music Festival XV (held July 29 through August 1 at Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Seaside Park) proudly wears that moniker as a badge of honor, staying true to its core audience as opposed to many of the newcomer affairs of late.Â
In its 15th year, the Vibes is a Grateful Dead family festival — period.Â Most of the bands have some connection to the Dead, and most of the bands on the bill appeal to Deadheads.Â In fact, a fellow festivarian joked that all of the contracts must “contain a clause that they play at least one Dead-related song.” Of course this comment was in jest, but not too far off the mark all the same.
All that said, one thing is certain: if one doesn’t like the Grateful Dead, this festival is not for him. This suits me just fine as I can get tired of slogging through “new bands pushing boundaries,” through mediocre jamtronica bands, turntablists and MCs who rely more on computers than instruments to create their vibe in search of finding pockets of inspiration.Â
Sometimes wallowing in one’s comfort zone is just what the doctor ordered, and was just what the Vibes was serving with guitar-driven rock and roll and equally represented old school hippie noodling.
When telling friends that traveling to the Vibes was next on my agenda, I was met with many cautionary tales in hushed tones to “be careful.”Â The staunch warning about the surroundings was given, and reminders of last year’s tragic death that remains shrouded in conspiracy theory, were repetitively spoken.Â However, none of these well-intentioned relations even remotely resembled the reality of the setting in which I would spend my weekend.
The surroundings were indeed those of a post-industrial city in decline, but once inside the compound, I witnessed nothing that was out of character for a music festival.Â In fact, I’d have to say that the crowd at the Vibes was relatively well-behaved and good natured.Â If the Vibes has had a nitrous oxide problem in the past, it hasÂ certainly been successful at managing to all but eradicate it entirely. There was be nothing personally witnessed throughout the weekend that would prevent a return to Bridgeport and plenty that encouraged a reprisal effort.
Arriving on Thursday, I was met with the usual confusion at check in, but helped by very friendly staff members.Â Wading through the norm of long lines of cars waiting to exchange tickets for various wristbands, pay for parking, and be searched by security is routine festival standard operating procedure and came with no unexpected turns or twists.Â I saw many people forced to abandon contraband (mostly glass bottles), but thankfully no one being detained.
Once inside the park, the directive was given in regards to the camping fields that would be called “home” for the weekend. The speed with which 10,000 roving music fans can set up a makeshift tent city never ceases to amaze me.
After a brief chat with neighboring campers, I made my way to my first musical event of the opening day, New Riders of the Purple Sage.Â Having never seen the band before, but still being familiar with their work because of Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel guitar play in early incarnations, the set was not altogether a foreign affair.Â The band delivered a solid set of Americana country that was a nice way to ease into the night.
Dark Star Orchestra followed and delivering an energetic, if standard, set.Â While enjoyable, the band simply felt out of place in a weekend lineup that later included original Dead-member anchored projects and their purpose at the festival seemed to be somewhat diminished by this.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation closed out the night with a New Orleans-rooted funk dance party that had the crowd getting down and funkin’ it up.Â The high-energy vibe seemed to draw in more young attendees who weren’t quite ready to call it a night and as a result, Sam kept them going into the early morning.
Friday morning came early as the sun beat down on the tent, turning it into an oven.Â Making good use of the day, many folks headed for the beach and rocky shore adjacent to the venue.
Having my morning coffee on the retaining wall, watching people play in the sand and surf was an enjoyable introduction into the scene at the Vibes, where attendees have taken a particular affinity towards making great and extensive use of the naturally beautiful setting that encompasses the festival site.Â As grownups joyously decorated the walkway with sidewalk chalk, the reminder that we’re never really too old to have a good time and play like kid was a constant.
The morning also afforded me time to take in the park itself. Situated along the Bridgeport coast, Seaside Park offered great views, as well as some natural shade trees.Â The stage layout consisted of two main stages and a children’s area stage. Vendors lined the outside of the main stage area and the streets within the park. Imagine taking over an urban park and superimposing a festival and the vision should be complete.
All in all, the physical layout was very workable. With the backdrop set, the addition of the friendly people, great bands, and Wavy Gravy as host, and the stage was set for phenomenally superb revelry.
New Orleans’ Radiators started my musical day.Â With a 30 year history, they always bring a good rock-and-roll vibe and many hardcore fans.Â A shared sentiment seemed to pass through the crowd of “They’re good – why are they playing so early in the day?”
Later in the day, I would happen upon a previously unseen band that managed to move me: Kung Fu. Led by guitarist Tim Palmieri (The Breakfast), the band can be described as funky, but there’s much more precision to the jams than typical in a funk band. Following this sleeper of the weekend was Jackie Greene, who delivered a soulful and moving mid-day set that was a nice contrast to his later-evening rockers. It was as though Greene sensed what the crowd needed, and opted to deliver more story-telling as opposed to raucous face melting.
In typical festival fashion, the next lineup call was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. This outfit is always a pleasure to see on any bill. The high-energy soul review is always spot on and they hit and quit it like James Brown or Tina Turner before them – rehearsed, tight and on.
After a break for a bite to eat and a quick rest, I eagerly anticipated the night’s headline set by Furthur. The band itself is working as a unit, navigating twists and turns of the music, as well as creating a space large enough for exploration.Â A friend of mine is fond of commenting that John Kadlecik was “called up to the big leagues,” and he is making the best of his promotion.
While Furthur seems to have on and off nights, the two-set show at the Vibes was one of the best and this is a point that was not just upheld from a personal perspective. As the materialization of the opening set built upon itself, the highlight came in the closing sandwich of “Estimated Prophet > Eyes of the World > Not Fade Away,” which would only be topped by the “Terrapin Suite” encore, a testament of the progressive energy that Further yields in its mission to make a satiating statement with which to leave its departing followers.
While not breaking any new ground, Furthur is the best approximation of the Grateful Dead on the road these days, and a true delight to see.
As Saturday began so did the music, which increased from a murmur to a roar as I made my way from the campground to the stages. Upon arrival, The McLovins had begun their set. This assembly is a young – as in youthful – band that’s garnered some attention recently following the viral spread of a YouTube video of them a stunningly duplicating Phish’s “You Enjoy Myself” in their parents’ basement. Their presence at the festival alone lends insight into how the playing field on the circuit is driven by complete equal opportunity. What is most impressive about these guys are their abilities at such young ages, evidenced by spot on and somewhat complicated composures. However, they seem to draw more from inspiration of those that came before them rather than countering with much originality. Nonetheless, there is room for them to grow if they can get a vocalist with the chops to match their instrumentation. They have the potential to develop into a mature band with their own sound and should make it onto anyone’s “to be watched for list.”
Next up was Jamie McLean, easily recalled from his tenure with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band but whose own band is focused more on songwriting in the blues-meets-Americana vein. While this set was a treat in its own right, it was time for the first gut-funky high energy set of the day through the sounds of Galactic with guests Corey Henry and Cyril Neville. Supporting their latest album and focused on structured songs rather than loose jams, Galactic continues to evolve enough to keep the music interesting rather than rest on their laurels and grow stagnant.
The first headliner of the night was the Rhythm Devils featuring Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, Keller Williams, Andy Hess (Gov’t Mule) and Davy Knowles (Back Door Slam) and talking drum master, Sikiru Adepoju.Â I didn’t know what to expect from the band, but was surprised to find them heading in new directions.Â Rather than be content with Grateful Dead covers (although Keller pulled off a couple of gems), the band featured Keller songs as well as giving Knowles equal time to shine in his soulful vocals and guitar playing.Â Their set closer was augmented by a duo of fire dancers, who added a nice visual aspect to the show.
As a Primus virgin, their inclusion in the Vibes lineup gave it the diversity that was needed and the weirdness that was doled out was plentiful. From the beginning of the set, all in attendance were informed that we would have to bear a crusade only of the brave in “To Defy the Laws of Tradition.” This yielded to a twisted version of Pink Floyd’s “In the Flesh” that gave the crowd a look of sheer awe and/or horror across their mugs. As the majority crowd sucked it like a golf ball through a hose pipe, many seemed to be reliving the days of their mosh-pit youth. On the other hand, it was almost comical to watch some of the faces in the crowd who didn’t know what to expect, reminiscent of the South Park episode when Cartman breaks up the hippie fest.Â It was loud and strange – exactly what was promised. Apparently some folks didn’t get that memo. The set and evening would close with Sailing the Seas of Cheese‘s “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers,” which served as a mellow way to send the throng out of the field and into their tents. Sweet dreams kiddies.
Sunday came as the previous two days had: early. As is typical for many festival’s closing days, it was relatively mellow.Â Little Feat played their familiar tunes, and played them well.Â The band had the crowd singing along and dancing happily to tunes they knew well. Martin Sexton, backed by The Ryan Montbleau Band, delivered the most moving set of the day.Â Sexton’s personal stories of failure and triumph seemed to grow in depth backed by a band which also allowed his quirky and fun side to shine through in greater color.
The remaining portion of the day would bring the dub and reggae lovers their portion by offering Damien Marley and Nas followed by Jimmy Cliff. Both sets were strong and while Cliff’s set was centered in his well known material, Marley and Nas did make attempts at pushing the envelope outside of their homage to marijuana, although that did manage to make it in the set.
As I walked out of the concert grounds, I reflected on the good points of the fest – the location, the people, and the solid lineup.Â The Vibes had no major problems and many reasons to return. If you’re a part of the Grateful Dead extended family, this event comes highly recommend. Buy the ticket, take the trip.
Click the photos to see more from the fest! (all photos by Jeffrey Dupuis )
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