Gathering of the Legends: A Vibes Recap

Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Conn. once again played host for the 2014 edition of the Gathering of the Vibes, a music festival which featured a dreamlike musical lineup with rock legends at every turn. Literally offering something for almost all musical tastes, Vibes once again showed why it has become one of the most entertaining and dominant festivals this country has to offer. The music that these four magical days produced seemed to blow the sky-high expectations out of the water and will certainly serve as one of the true highlights of this year’s summer festival season.

Thursday Gathering of the Vibes offered a full four days of music and the proceedings kicked off early Thursday afternoon. One of the early headliners was White Denim, a true up and comer on the scene, currently in the midst of a full-scale North American tour. Their set on the Green Vibes Stage, the secondary stage of the festival located just outside the main grounds and near Boardie Camping, featured selections from their new album Corsicana Lemonade. Afterwards, Rusted Root took over the stage and contributed a set filled with their usual selections including their entertaining take on the Elvis classic “Suspicious Minds”. Following a spirited set of tunes from Ryan Montbleu & Friends on the Main Stage, old school northeastern jam icons Strangefolk delivered the first memorable set on this stage with a poignant yet lighthearted string of songs that included a full set sit in from Jason Crosby of God Street Wine and Assembly of Dust. Stanley Jordan, a guitar virtuoso who essentially served as a musician at large throughout the entire festival, made his first appearance with an inclusion on “Sometimes”. Despite a solid start of music, an unfortunate mishap occurred on the opening night of the festival as East or Boardie Camping, an area of campsites located near the festival grounds that comes with an additional cost due to its close proximity, was improperly arranged with cars due to a staffing deficiency earlier in the afternoon. This forced the area to close at a certain hour of night and force campers who had rightful access to it to park in West aka General Camping which is further away from all the stages and main festival grounds. To the festival’s credit however, they did allow campers with passes to East Camping to move their cars and belongings to the right area the following morning when sunlight would allow for a much more feasible transition.

The latter part of music on Thursday night included a Grateful Dead tribute band and one of the true rising talents in the jam scene. Dark Star Orchestra did not replicate a Dead show of yonder but instead delivered two sets of covers that traversed both the Dead and Jerry Garcia Band catalogs. “Shakedown Street” served as an appropriate opener before seguing into an impressive “Greatest Story Ever Told”. Later, the GOTV veterans smoothly moved through the JGB classic “Cats Under the Stars” before bringing Stanley Jordan and drummer Kenwood Dennard on stage for a sit in on “Bird Song” which ended the first set. DSO’s second set, as expected, was a little more spacey but not before a “China Cat Sunflower” started things up again before giving way to a “Hey Pocky Way” and, eventually, “I Know You Rider”. A stellar “Playing in the Band” then sandwiched a drums jam which featured another appearance from Jordan and Dennard for good measure. This performance helped set the tone for what is typically a heavily Grateful Dead inspired weekend and this year’s Vibes would certainly prove to be no different. A late night set from Dopapod was the only thing left on the menu this evening and the thriving electronica quartet was the perfect fit for last act of the day. The group displayed a deft touch in moving in and out of different musical styles ranging from hard rock to psychedelic dub and showed off a much improved light rig that definitely enhanced the performance. The collaborative spirit was still alive and well late at night as Dopapod’s set also featured another sit in from Stanley Jordan and later Todd Stoops and Adrian Tramantano from Kung Fu joined the fray for two songs which included a monstrous version of “Trapper Keeper”. Dopapod seems to slowly be making the ascension many thought they would and their set capped off an extremely busy first day.

Friday Another band making a slow yet steady rise to prominence in the festival circuit, Twiddle, served as the wake up call on the Main Stage for the first full day of music. As would be expected for any set starting at 11 a.m., the group played a fairly laid back but heartfelt set of songs to a crowd that steadily grew as the festival population continued to rise and shine. By the end of their set, the band seemed genuinely honored with how many people were present which suddenly made such an early start time not as bad. Afterwards, the next Grateful Dead inspired act took the stage in the form of a certified power trio. Keller Williams brought his Grateful Grass act to Bridgeport which featured the very capable assistance of Jeff Austin on mandolin and Reed Mathis on bass guitar. On an increasingly humid afternoon in front of a rapt crowd, the group acoustically plowed through a string of Dead tunes from all eras. The set began with the band intricately weaving in and out of a sublime version of “Eyes of the World” that featured a strong outro jam which segued right into “Brown Eyed Women” which, in turn, transitioned right into the opening of “Birdsong”. Perhaps more impressive than the quality of play from these masterful musicians was their innate ability to craft cohesive jams that seamlessly flowed right into one another. After Williams delivered a heartfelt thank you to the crowd for giving them an excuse to play all of these wonderful songs, the group demolished one last segue in the form of the set closing combination of “Scarlet Begonias -> Fire”.

The musical tone then shifted, albeit briefly, to big band style as Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue followed on the Main Stage with a rousing set of New Orleans themed funk and jazz numbers. Strong rhythmic jams with heavy brass overtones filled this lively set as festival goers slowly started to populate areas in the crowd with lawn chairs and blankets in an effort to carve out personal real estate for the rest of the night. In the true spirit of a communal festival, setting chairs and leaving other personal belongings on the ground to do this is not only safe and permissible but also somewhat recommended as long as it’s not done too close to the stage or it interferes with someone else’s vantage point. Once the Mardi Gras atmosphere that had been built up subsided a little, it was once again time to pay homage to the Grateful Dead, the band responsible for the inspiration of the first Gathering of the Vibes festival 19 years ago. Drummer extraordinaire Joe Russo has assembled an all-star band of sorts that is making themselves quite known due to their ability to both pay tribute to Dead compositions of all sorts while adding a modern-day influence and style to the jams that ensue. Featuring other established artists like Marco Benevento on keys and Scott Metzger on guitar, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead tore through Grateful Dead staples like “Casey Jones” and “St. Stephen” and did so in a fashion that seemed to have even the oldest or most jaded Deadheads slowly nodding in agreement. A true highlight was a soulful version of “Reuben & Cherise”, a song Jerry Garcia often performed with his solo projects, that slowly but steadily morphed into yet another stirring rendition of “Eyes of the World”. Guitarist Tommy Hamilton took care of lead vocals on the majority of songs played and the set ended with one last segue of “Lazy Lightning -> Uncle John’s Band”, a pair of songs which had been played in the opposite order to begin the set.

This would be the last of The Grateful Dead themed portions of the day as the final three acts on the Main Stage greatly varied in both substance and style. San Diego rockers Slightly Stoopid brought a loose, fun and total West Coast vibe to this East Coast festival with a lengthy set of rock and reggae inspired songs. A vibrant horn section helped give a lot of their songs an old school ska feel to them as well. The band even decided to reach back into the vaults for an older song from 1994 that was straight up punk rock which, no lie, resulted in a full-fledged hippie mosh pit. This may be a first for Vibes but research is still ongoing. With a fun and ‘lively’ mood in the crowd now firmly established, it was then time for one of the weekend’s true headliners, John Fogerty. The driving force behind Credence Clearwater Revival, one of the most iconic American bands ever formed, seems like he hasn’t lost a step at all and prowled all over the Main Stage with a complete set of classic rock hits. Starting with the “Travelin’ Band” opener, Fogerty began his set with a string of popular songs like “Born on the Bayou”, “Lodi” and “Lookin Out My Back Door”. Following this, he then went back and forth between lesser known solo numbers and other CCR classics like “Susie Q” and a set closing “Fortunate Son” that seemed to feature the entire crowd on backup vocals. The rock legend then came out for a stirring encore of “Bad Moon Rising” and “Proud Mary” which allowed Fogerty one last chance to show off his infectious stage presence and properly end a set that was much more lively and powerful than many may have expected.

Finally, it was time for one of the most anticipated sets of the weekend as Lotus, an established act in the jamtronica vein of today’s music scene, promised a set of ‘deconstructed’ Talking Heads covers. This meshing of two distinct musical styles had everyone dreaming big and also wondering if the performance would be all instrumental or not. This question was answered immediately with Gabe Otto taking care of the lead vocals on the opener ‘Pull Up the Roots’. Donned in his finest all white suit and doing an admirable impression of David Byrne, Otto handled the vocals on all songs when needed. When it wasn’t needed, Lotus delighted the evening crowd with a stunning technical proficiency and truly unique take on another immensely influential American band. Driving guitar riffs and spacey synth effects served as a foundation for the music that expertly mixed the percussive heavy jam style of Talking Heads with the electronica aspects of Lotus – a match made in music festival heaven. ‘The Great Curve’ was played to perfection and, later, Tommy Hamilton reemerged to lend guitar work on “I Zimbra” and the Lotus original “Spiritualize”. Some of the other highlights were songs taken from the Talking Heads Remain in Light album like “Born Under Punches” and “Crosseyed and Painless”, the latter of which featured Jason Hann from String Cheese Incident and EOTO on percussion. What appeared to be a first time musical experiment can clearly be deemed a success which was met with resounding applause from a tired yet appreciative Vibes crowd. With action now complete on the Main Stage after a thorough day of music, the crowd slowly parted as people weighed decisions on whether to retire to campsites, trudge over to the Green Vibes stage for Deep Banana Blackout and EOTO late night sets or take a nice long walk down the shoreline to the Silent Disco which featured a plethora of DJs spinning well into the night.

Saturday The term “Super Saturday” can be thrown around loosely at times and may not always ring true but on the third day of Gathering of the Vibes it most certainly did. With superstar names like Umphrey’s McGee, Widespread Panic and The Disco Biscuits all on the day’s lineup, Saturday was, by far, the day most people were looking forward to and it certainly featured the largest crowd of the weekend as many came to the festival this day only based on the music that was being offered. If it’s possible, a day that began with very high hopes seemingly had them all exceeded and then some with a Saturday that produced one magical moment after another. Appropriately filling in the pre-noon time slot on the Main Stage was Assembly of Wine – a hybrid of band members from Assembly of Dust and God Street Wine. Their relaxed and quasi-folky sound helped those few who were in attendance to wake up and start a new day with a relaxed attitude. Afterwards, Connecticut locals Kung Fu got things a little more warmed up with their signature brand of ‘in your face’ funk rock. When their set was completed, Stoops, Tramantano and guitarist Tim Palmieri held court in the media tent, answered questions and shed a little inside light on what appears to be a potentially exciting and popular band on the rise.

Gathering of the Vibes really showed its musical diversity on Saturday with the bands performing that afternoon. First, a relaxed and intimate set of bluegrass inspired rock went down on the Main Stage as the recently reunited Leftover Salmon were joined by Bill Payne of Little Feat for the entire set. Covers of Little Feat classics “Oh Atlanta” and “Dixie Chicken” stood out amongst everything played even though they stayed fairly true to the original versions. Next, acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela wowed spectators with their unique style of synchronized strumming and picking before giving way to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a relatively new indie folk band and one of the few West Coast acts to appear this weekend. All of these acts served as wonderful musical appetizers of sorts, but now it was time for some main courses. Starting with a lively Dumpstaphunk set on the Green Vibes stage, for the rest of the evening, music would be served by true titans of the current jam scene. One of these is the popular Midwestern rock outfit Umphrey’s McGee. Certainly no stranger to the festival circuit, Umphrey’s played a set full of songs from their newest album Second Skin starting with the opener, “Cut the Cable”. Later, Kenwood Dennard would lend his percussive assistance again with a sit in on “Women Wine and Song”. The Chicago rockers then proceeded to deliver a complete set of their popular blend of musical improvisation fueled by prog rock themes and blistering cohesiveness. UM showed off its dark side as well with a harrowing cover of Tool’s “Forty Six & Two” with drummer Kris Myers taking care of the vocals. This paved the way for an old school closer in “Miss Tinkle’s Overture” that served as a fitting end to a remarkable set.

The bar had certainly been set high with this performance, but amazingly, Widespread Panic was able to build on it and take the music to another level. With all traces of sunlight now finally gone, the Southern rockers opened things with an energetic “Tall Boy” opener highlighted by some spirited play on piano from JoJo Hermann. This moved seamlessly into another older, classic tune in “Climb to Safety” and the band was off and running and didn’t look back. Other highlights included a massively psychedelic “Little Lilly” which featured some captivating background lighting on stage. A slow and steady jam followed that eventually picked up in pace and before long, Col. Bruce Hampton joined the band on stage and lent his vocal prowess to a wild version of “Fixin’ to Die”. Between the truly inspired guitar solos from Jimmy Herring and an ultra-steady rhythm section, Panic delivered both a musical and visual show for the ages that touched on all areas of their extensive catalog of songs. Classics like “Chilly Water” and “Driving Song” were expertly mixed with newer songs like “Cotton Was King” and covers like JJ Cale’s “Ride Me High”. The finished product wound up being one of the most impressive and memorable acts of the entire weekend, a feat unto itself right there. While most people knew what to expect from a Widespread Panic performance, the one that followed had everyone guessing as to the possibilities. The kings of the modern jamtronica scene, The Disco Biscuits, recruited the help of some familiar faces for a potentially mind-blowing musical collaboration. Mickey Hart & Bill Kretutzmann, the Rhythm Devils themselves, would be joining them for a performance that saw old school Grateful Dead songs performed in a truly new school manner. At first, only the Philadelphia foursome appeared on stage as they warmed everyone up with a fairly standard run through of “Story of the World”, a Bisco original. A surprising cover choice in James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing” followed which also featured a guest vocalist in Greg Sherrod to give it a truly soulful touch. Soon after, the music steadily shifted back from funky to untzy as the band ripped through the ending of another standout original song, “Confrontation”.

While hopes of an inverted version went by the wayside, it was then time to bring out the guests of honor as Hart and Kreutzmann got both the introduction and warm welcome each deserves as they arrived on stage. In a truly fitting first song choice, the newly formed sextet delivered a stunning version of “Home Again” that was marked with a superb ascending jam. It only made sense to play a first song like this with two members of The Grateful Dead, a band which helped inspire the notion of festivals like this. In true jamband fashion, the opening number eventually turned into a new one without any stoppage and a string of modernized Dead classics ensued. Starting with “West L.A. Fadeaway” –  the next sequence of songs was one for the ages as the drum icons lent a steady and recognizable rhythm to the proceedings. “I Know You Rider” and yet another “Eyes of the World” with keyboardist Aron Magner on vocals followed; the group did a remarkable  job of keeping the basic integrity of these classic songs intact while injecting a faster tempo with contemporary musical effects at certain times. The always upbeat “Shakedown Street” also made an appearance and as a slow, gentle rain began to descend on the crowd towards the end of the set, another impressive jam steered its way into a take of “Viola Lee Blues”. A song that was expected to be heard as The Disco Biscuits had debuted it in a performance earlier this summer. One last Bisco tune rounded out the set in the form of a long and powerful “I-Man” that was rich in musical texture and served as a fitting end to the set. The encore featured a legitimate choir on stage that sang everybody home with a spirited version of “And We Bid You Goodnight” –  a song often used to close out Dead shows of the past and a more than fitting ending to an epic day of music.

Sunday The final day of Vibes generally has a more relaxed and intimate feel to it as people begin to pack up campsites and prep for the ride home back to reality. This year’s Sunday was no different as afternoon sets from Maceo Parker and McLovins were fairly laid back and mellow. After each of these, the music then took on a true Upstate New York vibe as two more legends graced the festival with their respective styles. Donna the Buffalo has been delivering their infectious sound of zydeco fueled grassroots rock all over New York and the rest of the country for many years now. Their set on the Green Vibes stage fit the relaxed Sunday atmosphere perfectly as Tara Nevins belted out the inspirational lyrics of the band’s classic hit “If You Only Could”. Over on the main stage, fellow New York rock legends moe. treated the Sunday crowd to a set full of originals. A lively “Tailspin” opener soon turned into “Hi and Lo” – a much older tune, before transitioning into “Little Miss Cup Half Empty”; a song from their most recent release No Guts, No Glory. A fairly straightforward set followed with “Buster” and “Wind it Up” serving as songs/jams of note.

Once the Upstate New York portion of the festival was completed, the end of a memorable weekend was within sight, but not before two more notable acts closed out the Main Stage. Ziggy Marley was the perfect choice to fill one of the Sunday afternoon time slots as he led his band and the audience for a set composed of mostly original numbers. As good as they may have been, it’s hard to argue that they got the same reception as his father’s ‘love’ songs as “Is This Love”, “One Love” and “Could You Be Loved” all made appearances. Afterwards, one of the last additions to the festival’s lineup, Dispatch, closed things out in fine fashion with an upbeat and positive set of rock and harmonies. The 19th Gathering of the Vibes was now in the books and what a weekend of music it was for those fortunate enough to be in attendance all four days. Despite some early mishaps, the festival smartly put all its chips behind the immense musical talent that truly defined this year’s Vibes. With pleasant weather throughout and the same warm, communal vibe that’s present every year, it would be hard not to declare this year a resounding success with one of the finest musical lineups ever assembled.

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