One of the great rites of passage the Northeast music scene has to offer every summer is a not so little festival called Gathering of the Vibes. Spawned from a small Deadhead party thrown at SUNY-Purchase in 1996, it’s now grown into a much larger annual celebration of The Grateful Dead and music in general. Thousands of fans set up camp within Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT and are treated to a long weekend of musical acts that featured some contemporary bands and new names but also a lot of classic and familiar ones.
Thursday’s music got started bright and early on the Green Vibes Stage at noon with sets by MIZ and Lucid which served as a more than acceptable soundtrack for people arriving and setting up camps nearby. The Green Vibes Stage served as the main secondary stage for the festival and it was also utilized for the late night festivities. This was the most scenic of the stages as well located just feet away from the majestic waters of Long Island Sound with plenty of trees up close that provided shade during the day.
One of the first familiar faces of the weekend belonged to George Porter, Jr. & his Runnin’ Pardners who graced the Green Vibes stage later that afternoon. The legendary New Orleans bassist and his band bobbed and weaved through an expectedly funky and uptempo set which seemed to really kick off the festival. It also featured some of the first slightly “Dead” themed music of the weekend as the ‘Aiko Aiko’ -> ‘Hey Pocky Way’ that was played is something that could be plucked right out of a late 80s setlist. They also threw in their take on ‘Lovelight’ as well as the Alan Toussaint classic, ‘Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley’.
While this was going on, Zach Deputy Band got things cooking on the Main Stage. His unique brand of soulful rock infused with looping technology and introspective lyrics served as an opening act of sorts for one of the more high profile bands of the weekend, Yonder Mountain String Band. This self-dubbed high energy acoustic bluegrass band has been a festival staple for years now. This set marked the second to last gig of their current tour and one of their last chances to “get their ya-ya’s out” per mandolinist Jeff Austin. The latter part of their set featured YMSB classic hits like ‘Complicated’ and ‘On the Run’ as the sun began to set on the first night of Vibes.
The Grateful Dead aspect of the festival ramped up into full gear with Thursday night’s main act, Dark Star Orchestra. This group has been touring the country since 1997 delivering both spot on replicas of actual Dead shows and creative original sets filled with Dead tunes. They picked a gem of a show to cover this evening by playing 7/18/89 Alpine Valley in its entirety. This classic late 80s show opened with ‘Touch of Grey’ and was followed by a poignantly played ‘Jack Straw’. A quintessential cover The Grateful Dead did during this era, Bob Dylan’s ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, was also very well executed with Rob Eaton nailing the extensive lyrics. The second set opened with the classic ‘Sugar Magnolia’ -> ‘Scarlet Begonia’ pairing and took off from there. ‘Eyes of the World’ lead into the ‘Drums and Space’ portion of the show and later on the covers kept on coming with the band’s takes on Traffic’s ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ and The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’. Fittingly, the encore of this show was yet another cover and another Dylan one at that with ‘The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)’ closing it out.
For anyone still on their feet and able to move, the late night portion of Thursday’s music was filled by The Royal Family Ball featuring Soulive and Lettuce. These are another two acts that have become a regular sight on festival lineups due to their unique blend of soul, funk and rhythm and blues. Both groups feature the talents of Eric Krasno on guitar and Neal Evans on keys so that doesn’t hurt either.
Soulive kicked things off in proper fashion with two of their classics, ‘Hat Trick” and “Upright’. Both songs were accompanied by a three piece horn section dubbed The Shady Horns. The covers just kept on coming as the band’s unique take on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ followed and this segued nicely into ‘Third Stone From the Sun’. Soulive released an entire album of Beatles covers appropriately titled “RubberSoulive” and is a must hear for any fan of the Fab Four, Soulive or both.
The Shady Horns later re-emerged towards the end of Soulive’s performance, Adam Deitch took over on drums and just like that Lettuce was grown on stage. The multi-piece funk/soul/RnB outfit kept things grooving all the way into early Friday morning thus capping off a truly full day 1 of music and fun.
A light but very steady rain greeted festival goers on Day 2. This soaked the grounds pretty thoroughly and made for a more than adequate test in keeping a dry campsite. Small puddles and thick, viscous mud formed on the main field which tested everyone’s footwork a little. Shortly after noon, Reid Genauer made his first appearance of the weekend with Assembly of Dust.
This soon gave way to the next Grateful Dead themed act of the weekend, 7 Walkers, which features Bill Kreutzmann on drums, Papa Mali on guitar and the aforementioned George Porter, Jr. on bass, naturally. These guys have done a wonderful job of taking a handful of Dead classics and infusing them with a rich, soulful New Orleans sound. Their version of “Sugaree” has become a signature song of sorts for the group and this rendition was supplemented with guitar work by Scott Murawski of MaxCreek who sat in. He also joined in on versions of ‘Bird Song’ and ‘Wharf Rat’ that were both well received. All of this mixed with the typically fun and infectious ‘New Orleans Crawl’ led by Papa Mali made for a great early set of music regardless of the elements.
While the sun never really appeared on Friday, the rain eventually subsided a little and more festival goers emerged from their respective covers and made their way over to the main stage. There were certainly plenty of good reasons to do so as one of the weekend’s more prestigious collaborations was taking place on the Main Stage. Bruce Hornsby, Bob Weir and none other than Branford Marsalis combined musical forces and put on a treat for all to hear.
The set started out with just the three men on stage trading licks and playing off one another like they’ve done so many times before. Before long, some light noodling by Weir and some distinctive piano work by Hornsby gave way to a full fledged version of ‘Dark Star’ that seem to catch everyone by surprise a little. Later on, a rhythm section filled in behind the music legends and the set kicked into high gear. They treated everyone to a rollicking ‘Me and My Uncle’ – > ‘Mexicali Blues’ that everyone dancing and singing along. The set concluded with a monstrous ‘Playing in the Band’ that left nothing but smiles on both the audience and musician’s faces.
The main act Friday night saw the third living member of The Grateful Dead take the stage, Phil Lesh. Phil and his ‘Friends’ (which included his sons Brian and Grahame) treated everyone to a fun show that spanned two sets and featured several gems from the Dead catalog of songs. Not to be outdone by 7 Walkers, Phil led the band through their own version of ‘Bird Song’ in the first set. Therein lies one of the unavoidable ‘problems’ of a Dead-based music festival: the repeating of songs. While it may be an issue for fans who aren’t as into The Grateful Dead as others may be, true fans were able to hear some of their favorite songs interpreted by different bands all throughout the weekend.
The second set opened with a monstrous ‘St. Stephen’ and later on ‘Scarlet Begonias’ made another appearance. This time, the band stretched it out a little and segued nicely into ‘Fire on the Mountain’. Phil & Friends delivered Dead classics all night long and ‘Shakedown Street’ served as the encore and the final song of the day on the Main Stage.
The Friday late-night slot switched up gears, musically speaking, to say the least. Classic Dead tunes and rock covers gave way to uptempo electronica as done by Conspirator and Gigantic Underground Conspiracy. Another ‘interlocking band member’ pairing, the two acts made sure everyone in attendance was still moving and moving hard as Friday night became Saturday morning.
Conspirator started out as a Disco Biscuits side project for members Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner and has now emerged as its own beast altogether. They’ve increased their touring significantly lately and have been making their mark on the festival circuit this year. Christ Michetti, formerly of Raq, has taken over on guitar for the group and gives the band a technical precision that meshes perfectly with the pulsing beats and electronic grooves that are generated. Conspirator looked great and sounded better as the band members were clearly locked in to one another and having a great time doing so.
As their set went on, more instruments were brought on stage, drum parts were exchanged and soon the evolution into Gigantic Underground Conspiracy was complete. This outfit consists of the aforementioned members of Conspirator along with Dominic Lalli and Jeremy Salken of Big Gigantic and Ben Baruch of Underground Orchestra. Saxophone and percussion were now thrown into an already infectiously uptempo mix. This kept the party going strong as revelers could either enjoy this or take a walk down the beach for some good old fashioned Silent Disco until the sun began to rise. Although this walk was quite lengthy from the main festival grounds, Silent Disco is a veritable good time at any festival and a great work around to any local noise ordinances. It involves personal headphones which can pick up two DJs spinning nearby and offers the listener the chance to pick which one they’d rather listen to. It’s a dance party with everyone wearing headphones, while having a great time.
For those scoring at home, so far the 2012 edition of Gathering of the Vibes has featured one of the most heralded touring bluegrass acts in the country, a New Orleans bass legend, three living members of The Grateful Dead and their respective projects, two other Grammy award winning legends and jaw dropping live electronica done by some of the best in the business…..and the weekend is only half way done.
Saturday brought better weather and much more typical summer festival conditions: hot and humid. Many people took advantage of the beach and the nearby water for some temporary relief. The water was also filled with docked boats in the area with people lounging, swimming and taking in the festival atmosphere.
Ryan Montbleau Band kicked things off early on the Main Stage with an energetic set which served as good wake up call for many. However, there were a lot of people very content to lie down in the few spots of available shade. The band contributed to the great covers played all weekend with their take on the Steve Miller Band hit ‘Jet Airliner’.
Their set gave way to perhaps one of the coolest cover bands out there right now, Zappa plays Zappa. This group has been touring pretty consistently for the last few years and the book on them has been very clearly written. Dweezil Zappa, offspring of Frank, and a bunch of insanely talented musicians and singers do spot on covers of Zappa tunes. The songs are always well performed and serve as a fitting tribute to one of the more unique musical minds to ever live. As an added bonus, lead vocalist and trumpet player Ben Thomas even sounds like Frank when he sings, be it intentional or not.
As the temperature began to get a little hotter, so did this set. ‘Dirty Love’ was well done and soon after that ‘Apostrophe’ was performed to perfection with relentless guitar work by Dweezil. He also displayed his well honed chops in a fun set closing ‘Muffin Man’. For any Zappa fan, this group is a must see.
Later that afternoon, the last of the living members of The Grateful Dead graced the Main Stage as Mickey Hart Band treated everyone to a set replete with Dead classics and innovative original tunes. ‘Not Fade Away’ filled the opener slot, a far cry from its usual set ending or encore positions in Dead shows of yore. MHB also threw in a fun ‘Franklin’s Tower’ that had many singing along.
For those in need of another dose of high octane electronica with a dash of progressive rock thrown in, Dopapod delivered the same over on the Green Vibes Stage. This quartet prides itself on not restricting itself to one musical genre or style as elements of funk, rock, trance and dubstep weaved in and out throughout their set. They also joined in the cover parade that lasted all weekend with a truly unique version of the 90s hit, ‘Peaches’.
Later that night, there was a reunion of sorts on the Main Stage as the original lineup of Strangefolk turned back the clock and rocked Gathering of the Vibes once more. This was a band that was a staple on the bills of early Gatherings along with other up and coming regional jam bands like Percy Hill and moe. Reid Genauer made his second appearance of the weekend and looked like he was having a great time as he led the group through the classic songs ‘Valhalla’ and ‘Lines and Circles’ to open. As night began to fall, the four old friends ripped through favorite after favorite from their catalog of songs creating disbelief that they hadn’t played together like this since 2000 prior to this year. They also remembered to pay proper homage to the founding spirit of this festival with a set closing ‘Touch of Grey’.
The mood then shifted back to hard rock as one of the main headliners, Primus, turned the Main Stage into their own musical playground. Les Claypool delivered his usual antics, banter and explosive bass play and Larry LaLonde attached his guitar like he was angry at it. Their set included several songs off of their latest album, Green Naugahyde, including ‘Tragedy’s a’ Comin’ but they made to sure play old favorites like ‘Jerry Was a Race Car Driver’ and ‘My Name is Mud’ before all was said and done. High intensity rock and roll combined with surreal video and animation on a large screen behind the band made for a memorable set to say the least.
Saturday night offered some very danceable music as Sound Tribe Sector 9 took over after Primus and threw down as only they can, creating an almost a rave-like scene. The late night acts included The Machine, one of the premier Pink Floyd tribute bands in the country and Papadosio, who kept revelers dancing through the night and into the morning.
As dawn broke on the last day of Vibes, people could be seen slowly taking down campsites and packing cars. Some left the grounds altogether assuredly content with an amazing three days of music. The Sunday lineup did have a much more relaxed feel to it that fit the day nicely.
Always a blast in whatever time slot he plays, Keller Williams served as the wakeup call on the Main Stage this day. He held nothing back as his set was highlighted by ferocious acoustic guitar play, thick, juicy bass lines and his renowned looping technology. He also featured the most ‘outside the box’ Dead cover with a rendition of ‘Can’t Come Down’, a song so old that it was conceived when The Grateful Dead was still going by their original moniker, The Warlocks. This was a true treat and a must hear for any Deadhead….or Warlockhead. ‘Best Feeling’ was a song a lot more people were familiar with and closed out Keller’s set in grand fashion.
As Keller wrapped up, The McLovins held court on the Green Vibes stage and greeted new arrivals with a solid take of ‘Playin’ in the Band’. The new incarnation of the band later played the song that originally shot them to notoriety, Phish’s ‘You Enjoy Myself’. While it’s certainly a different look and feel, the future is still very bright for this band as they appear to be slowly forming their own sound and identity while taking on harder and more complex compositions.
The afternoon wore and on more and more campsites dwindled in size and packed cars leaving the grounds became a more common sight. Max Creek delivered an enjoyable set on the Main Stage as Scott Murawski once again displayed his guitar prowess and a band that’s been together for four decades weaved through old classics. Afterwards, legendary band Steel Pulse performed delivering a healthy dose of reggae and dub to the Sunday festivities.
To close out the weekend, The Avett Brothers played a long set with a five song encore that tied a bow on a memorable weekend. Their heartfelt lyrics and own blend of country, folk, rock and ragtime sent everyone home happy. No covers were needed in this final set of the weekend as their hits like ‘Shame’ and ‘Kick Drum Heart’ satiated loyal fans and new listeners alike.
With no more music to be had, most campsites were fully cleaned and abandoned as car after car began to exit the premises. Gathering of the Vibes promised a full weekend filled with both musical legends and up and coming acts and it delivered in spades. A festival that began as a party for lovers of The Grateful Dead came to full fruition as all living members of the band played and played well. Whether it was Dead covers, bluegrass songs, New Orleans soul or infectious dubstep, the festival offered all things for all walks of people and tastes. Seaside Park appears to be the perfect host for such a gathering and will hopefully continue to be just that for years to come as yet another chapter of the Vibes story has now been written.